Youths in northern Nigeria’s Borno State, where many members of the radical Islamist group Boko Haram (BH) have been arrested in recent weeks, are increasingly joining vigilante gangs to pass on the identity of BH members to the military-police Joint Task Force (JTF) following a string of deadly attacks on schools, according to vigilante groups and residents of Borno State capital, Maiduguri.
"Vigilante groups are springing up in neighbourhoods to counter BH and many young men are joining them,” Abubakar Mallum, the leader of a vigilante group in Maiduguri, told IRIN. “BH has declared war on youths in Maiduguri and Damaturu, which has motivated many young men to join. The battle line has been drawn. Youths have realized they either fight by exposing BH or they risk being killed by BH,” he said.
Vigilante group members are now joining the police and military at checkpoints to identify BH members, Mallum said. “We know them, while the soldiers don’t.”
In the most recent high-profile attacks on 16 and 17 June, BH opened fire on the Government Secondary School in Damaturu, Yobe State, and Ansaruddeen private school in the Borno State capital Maiduguri, killing 16 students and two teachers, according to Lt-Col Sagir Musa, military spokesperson for Borno State.
Many BH members have fled camps in northeastern Nigeria following the Nigerian military crackdown on BH camps in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states (all in the north), and tried to return to their old neighbourhoods, said residents. The vigilantes, dubbed “civilian JTF” by Nigerian officials, are afraid that with the return of BH members to their neighbourhoods, regular bombings and gun attacks will resume, alongside killings and arson by the military in response.
“We know the [school] attacks are aimed at rattling us to abandon the noble task we have started of exposing BH members in our area. They are just using students as scapegoats,” Mallum told IRIN, adding: “Since BH members moved out to Marte District [Borno State] we have not had any bombings, and killings have dropped considerably. We are afraid if we allow them to come back, now that the military is hard on them, the relative peace we have been enjoying will be shattered.”
The vigilantes do not bear arms which puts them at great risk of BH reprisals, said Shehu Sani, a leading rights activist in northern Nigeria.
In the past, residents of BH enclaves in Maiduguri - including the neighbourhoods of Gwange, Bayan Quarters, Siumari, Gamboru Market and Kaware Maila, among others - were afraid of exposing BH members for fear of reprisals. “But now they want to return, which is what we are working to prevent,” said Mallum.
On 23 June vigilantes apprehended 31 BH suspects in Bulabulin, Anguwan Doki, Shuwari and Gamboru Market areas of Maiduguri, according to Lt-Col Musa.
A few days earlier, on 18 June, BH had issued an audio clip, threatening all-out war on youths in Maiduguri and Damaturu for helping the military. "We hereby declare an all-out war on you because you have formed an alliance with the Nigerian military and police to fight our brethren,” the statement said, in apparent reference to the 16 June Damaturu school attack. “We call on any parent that values the life of his son to stop him from exposing our members. Otherwise he is dead.”
BH is now “attacking soft targets such as schools to show the world that they are still strong and to instill fear in the minds of the people, especially the youth in Maiduguri and Damaturu,” Musa told IRIN.
Sani, the activist, said it is clear that BH has not been vanquished in the north. “It will be a big mistake to allow the vigilantes [to] carry arms to respond to BH attacks as it will be a way of breeding another breed of insurgents,” he warned.
A telecommunications shutdown on 15 May, following the 14 May declaration of a state of emergency in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states, is still in place.
On 19 June the military in Maiduguri extended the ban to satellite phones in Borno State, including Thurayas (used by wealthy residents), claiming BH had used such phones to plan school attacks.
The mid-June school attacks were the latest in a string of assaults on state schools, mainly in Maiduguri city and four local government areas in northern Borno - Marte, Kala-Balge, Gamboru Ngala and Mabar.